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The Hug Drug

Having a friend to talk to is effective medicine against depression.

It just may be that no drug is more effective than a good, meaningful chat. A British study has demonstrated the healing power of friendship.

A group of chronically depressed women living in London were randomly assigned to receive a volunteer "befriender" or were placed on a waiting list for one. The befrienders were instructed to be confidants to the depressed women, meeting them regularly for chats over coffee or outings.

Tirril Harris, of Guy's, King's and St. Thomas' schools of medicine in London reports that among the women who saw their volunteer friends regularly throughout the year, 72 percent experienced a remission in depression compared with just 45 percent in the control group. That's about the same success rate as antidepressants or cognitive therapy, says Harris.

The women who benefited most from the friendship prescription typically experienced some kind of "fresh start": they reconnected or made amends with a person who was estranged from them, or left an unpleasant job for another that seemed more promising.

In one case, Janet, a depressed woman who took part in the study, had been working overtime for no extra pay. Her befriender pointed out that this was unfair and suggested she ask for compensation. Janet approached her boss, who was "amenable and apologetic," Harris recalls. "These types of experiences—an acknowledgment of respect—made the formerly depressed women feel differently about themselves and about the world."